Current Bitterroot fires rekindle memories of monster blaze
By SHERRY DEVLIN · Of The Missoulian
By summer’s official start, the spine of the Bitterroot Range was afire.

The woods were parched from back-to-back winters of less than the needed snowfall. June’s showers did not come, and the mountains browned early. Crops failed. Creeks ran tepid and low.

  Associated Press photo
  Edward Pulaski saved his fire crew by leading them into a mine tunnel. He continued working for the U.S. Forest Service in Wallace until he retired.

Then the wind started to blow, dry and steady from the southwest. It did not stop until September.

The larger, more remote fires were lightning-caused. Those nearer to town came from campfires and passing trains. Some apparently were set by hoboes hoping for 25-cent-an-hour, three-meal-a-day firefighting wages.

After a late July lightning burst, District Forester W.B. Greeley put his forest supervisors on high alert, “owing to the exceptional climatic conditions which are making the fire danger this season far greater than any ordinary year.”

“Strengthen the patrol,” he commanded. “Retain a strong guard. Keep on hand a strong force of experienced firefighters who can be brought together quickly and relied upon to do good work.”

By August, the worry lines were on all faces. Townspeople in Wallace, Idaho, exploded dynamite, believing – or at least hoping – that manmade thunder could inspire rain showers. By the time forest supervisors asked the U.S. Army for soldiers to supplement weary firefighting forces, most parts of Western Montana and north Idaho had just one-half inch of precipitation to report for the year.

Smoke choked the mountain valleys. Taverns from Spokane to Butte surrendered their patrons to fire patrol. And thousands of men marched into the backcountry, on orders to keep the fires in check – if not extinguished. All hoped for an early advent of winter. None imagined what was to come. It was Aug. 20, 1910.

The wind came early that afternoon, a hurricane force that hit Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest first, meeting and merging with several large fires already burning. Fire lines disintegrated like tissue paper. Darkness fell half a day too soon.

Jumping the northern boundary of the Nez Perce, the wind took aim on the Clearwater River country. Already, the flame front reached 50 miles from side to side. And growing. Exploding north along the Bitterroot crest, the storm intensified, swallowing each of the earlier fires it came upon.

The gale uprooted entire forest stands, tossing ancient white pines and cedars like match sticks from a dropped box. The fire incinerated all that it encountered, indiscriminate in its destruction of towns, trees and lives. First came the roar, like a thousand locomotives crossing a thousand trestles. Then the glow, a light on the darkened horizon. Then the flames.

From scientists, we know the likely power of the blowup: runs of more than 50,000 acres, fire brands thrown 10 miles from the flame front, turbulence of up to 80 mph, burns – where the fire entered a natural crucible – equivalent to a Hiroshima-type bomb exploding every two minutes. Three million acres of land burned in two days.

From the firefighters and townspeople who survived, we know the otherwise unbelievable reality of the firestorm’s passing. “Fancy a deep bowl which is completely lined with seething flames, yourself a spectator in the center, and you can in some degree conceive the scene,” wrote one man, who helped in the defense of tiny Mullan, Idaho.

Some towns were saved by backfires, lit – at considerable peril – as a last resort against the fire’s approach. Some towns burned to the ground – Taft, DeBorgia, Henderson and Haugan on the Montana side of the divide; Wallace, on the other.

Those who met the fire in the backcountry survived by diving into creeks and mine tunnels, staying put despite falling embers and suffocating gases. Virtually all who ran died.

By the time the firestorm spent itself in the Kootenai National Forest, at least 78 firefighters and seven civilians were dead: a mother and baby who drowned trying to escape the flames in their homestead’s well, a man who shot himself for fear of burning to death, another who jumped from a train as it neared a burning trestle. At Big Creek, in the Coeur d’Alene forest, seven men died when they took refuge in a prospect hole. Three others there were killed by an immense falling pine.

Ninety years later, all of the survivors are believed gone – and with most of them, their stories. Many of the firefighters simply were not literate. Some were not even known to their crew bosses, having been hired so quickly and haphazardly.

The stories that were recorded, though, are like no others in the history of wildland firefighting. A few of those follow, pulled from Forest Service files, family letters, handwritten reminiscences and newspaper clippings.

Darkness fell on Moose Creek, on the southern edge of the Clearwater forest, just after 4 in the afternoon. Curiously, none of the 30 men in Ed Thenon’s command thought the premature nightfall alarming and instead ate their supper and said their goodnights.

Thenon bedded down, but did not sleep, “being one of those persons who can use the bed extensively as a place where lots of time can be spent in thinking over one’s troubles.”

Twice, he heard rain pelting the tent, or so he hoped. Twice, he got out of bed and found pine needles – not raindrops – falling.

Then he heard Louie Fitting’s voice calling: “Ed!”

Photos courtesy U.S. Forest Service and Pictorial Histories Publishing
Ranger Edward Pulaski stood at the door of this mine tunnel and threatened to shoot any of his crew who tried to leave during the 1910 fire’s approach. In doing so, he saved the men and was hailed as a hero by them all.
“Come out here; I just saw a star fall on the hillside across the creek. It has started a fire.”

True enough, there was a small fire starting well up the hillside across the creek. Thenon knew better than to blame a falling star, though, and turned slowly to the west, the direction the gale of wind was coming from. The sky was pink, the color spread across a width of several miles.

Said Thenon, “I knew at once all about Fitting’s star and where it came from.”

There was almost no time to wake his crew, Thenon remembered nearly 30 years later. “The fire was coming at a high rate of speed. Already, it was beginning to throw shadows in our camp. We were right in the middle of its path.”

As was true with so many others – firefighters and homesteaders – caught in the fire’s path, the creek was the crew’s only refuge. But it was no more than six or eight inches deep and encumbered by a six-foot-wide sandbar. Still, Thenon knew escape was simply not possible.

“I got up on a log and called all the men’s attention to me long enough to advise them not to leave this spot, to stay together and not to make an effort to save themselves by leaving the creek, that this could not be done,” he said.

Some of the men were beginning to cry “and take on pretty bad,” while others “were as cool and calm as if this was an everyday occurrence.” The cooler heads started moving the camp’ s provisions onto the sandbar. Two men soaked blankets in the creek and threw them over the horses’ heads and bodies. Thenon grabbed a bucket and started throwing water on everything – logs in the river, the camp, the horses, himself. One by one, the men rolled in the creek to soak their clothes.

“By this time, the heat from the crown fire was plainly felt as it was only a few rods away, and the wet canvas thrown over the grub pile had already caught fire,” he said. “ I was throwing a bucket of water on the grub pile when I heard a commotion among the men and left my work to see what it was about. I found that two of the men had completely lost their minds. One of them had become violently insane. Three men were trying to hold him and to lay him down in the creek. The other one was dancing around and singing a lullaby.”

The fire was upon them. There was no time left to prepare.

“I ordered every man to get into the creek, lie down and put a wet blanket over his head,” Thenon said. “ I sat the lullaby boy (I did not know his name) down in the deepest water and told him to stay there and threw a wet blanket over his head. He would not lie down.”

Thenon continued fighting spot fires in the drift piles until the fire front hit, stealing his breath and dropping him to his knees. “ This was the critical moment, the crisis, and the only moment during this ordeal that I felt sure my time had come, that it was the end,” he said. “ For no particular reason, I stuck my head into the bucket. This proved a blessing, as I was able to draw a breath instantly and was relieved of the terrible strain. I got to my feet, and with two or three steps I was in the creek, where I lay down with the bucket still over my head.”

Deeper yet in Clearwater country, Jim Girard and his logging crew first tried to outrun the fire, then – realizing there was no hope – sought refuge in the main river.

Girard dropped into the deepest hole he could find, brushing against one of his crew as he doused himself with water. Not until after the fire front passed did Girard realize that it was not a man next to him in the river. It was a bear.

Another ranger who ran for the Clearwater with his crew was nearly knocked over by a bear doing the same. There were, in fact, dozens of stories of bears, cougars, deer and elk bolting through camps and into creeks, their fear of man less than their fear of the approaching flames.

In the Clearwater, the wind and flames pulled into their fold fires already burning at Monumental Buttes, 49 Meadows and Old Camp de Miserie. In hours, at speeds barely imaginable, the fire crossed 1.9 million acres of the Nez Perce and 2.5 million acres of the Clearwater, burning all of the Clearwater’s headwaters from Weitas Creek up through Kelly Creek and across the Bitterroot Range, 15 miles down on the Montana side. Next in its path: the immense white pine and cedar forests of the St. Joe wilderness, where two troops of soldiers and 1,800 men were already fighting fires, not knowing what was headed their way.

Joe Halm had been fighting fires all that summer of 1910, and his men were by Aug. 20 silent and grim. When the firestorm hit, they were camped at Bean Creek on a tiny, timbered flat in the headwaters of the St. Joe River.

Halm told his story many times over the years to come, most often in writing. He had just returned from guiding several packers and their stock to one of his deep-country supply camps when a crew of panicked firefighters stampeded out of the woods. “The whole country’s afire,” said the foreman. “Grab your stuff, ranger. Let’s get out of here.”

Here, excerpted in his own words, is Halm’s story of the firestorm’s passing:

Things looked bad. Drastic steps were necessary. Supper was forgotten. I slipped into my tent and strapped on my gun. As I stepped out, a red glow was already lighting the sky. The men were pointing excitedly to the north.

“She’s jumped a mile across the canyon,” said the foreman, who had been talking quietly to the men. Stepping before them, I carelessly touched the holster of the gun and delivered an ultimatum with outward confidence, which I by no means felt.

“Not a man leaves this camp. We’ll stay by this creek and live to tell about it. I’ll see you through. Every man hold out some grub, a blanket and a tool. Chuck the rest in that tent, drop the poles and bury it.”

The men did not hesitate. The supplies, bedding and equipment were dumped into the tent, the poles jerked out and sand shoveled over it. Some ran with armloads of canned goods to the small sandbar in the creek, an open space scarcely 30 feet across. Frying pans, pails and one blanket for each man were moved there.

Meanwhile, the wind had risen to hurricane velocity. Fire was now all around us, banners of incandescent flames licked the sky. Showers of large, flaming brands were falling everywhere. The quiet of a few minutes before had become a horrible din. The hissing, roaring flames, the terrific crashing and rending of falling timber was deafening, terrifying. Men rushed back and forth trying to help. One young giant, crazed with fear, broke and ran. I dashed after him. He came back, wild-eyed, crying, hysterical. The fire had closed in; the heat became intolerable.

All our trust and hope was in the little stream and the friendly gravel bar. There was wet air over the water. Armed with buckets, we splashed back and forth in the shallow stream, throwing water as high as our strength would permit, drenching the burning trees. A great tree crashed across our bar; one man went down, but came up unhurt. A few yards below, a great log jam an acre or more in extent, the deposit of a cloudburst in years gone by, became a roaring furnace, a threatening hell. If the wind changed, a single blast from this inferno would wipe us out. Our drenched clothing steamed and smoked. Still, the men fought. Another giant tree crashed, cutting deep into the little bar, blinding and showering us with sparks and spray. But again, the men nimbly sidestepped the hideous meteoric monster.

After what seemed hours, the screaming, hissing and snapping of millions of doomed trees, the showers of sparks and burning brands grew less. The fire gradually subsided. Words were spoken. The drenched, begrimed men became more hopeful. Some even sought tobacco in their water-soaked clothing. Another hour, and we began to feel the chill of the night. The hideous red glare of the inferno still lighted everything, the trees still fell by the thousands. Wearily, the men began to drag the water-soaked blankets from the creek and dry them. Some scraped places beneath the fallen trees where they might crawl with their weary, tortured bodies out of reach of the falling snags. The wind subsided. Through that long night beside a manmade fire, guards sat, a wet blanket around their chilled bodies.

Dawn broke almost clear of smoke, the first in weeks. Men began to crawl stiffly out from their burrows and look about. Such a scene! The green standing forest of yesterday was gone; in its place, a charred and smoking mass of melancholy wreckage. The virgin trees, as far as the eye could see, were broken or down, devoid of a single sprig of green. Miles of trees – sturdy forest giants – were laid prone. Only the smaller trees stood, stripped and broken. The great log jam still burned. Save for the minor burns and injuries, all were safe. Inwardly, I gave thanks for being alive. A big fellow, a Swede, the one who had refused to stay, slapped me on the back and handed me my gun. I had not missed it.

“You lost her in the creek last night. You save me my life,” he said simply. His lip trembled as he walked away.

Six miles northeast of Avery, Idaho, 25-year-old William Rock headed a crew of about 70 firefighters encamped at Setzer Creek. When the windstorm hit, the camp was so quickly surrounded by fire that Rock knew there was no hope of reaching Avery.

So he led his men to a clearing burned over the previous day, which proved to be a place of absolute safety – so long as the men remained within its borders. All night, the fire burned around them, sending up columns of smoke that reached thousands of feet into the sky and were so filled with forest litter that they would burst into flames.

The holocaust was terrific. Eventually, it proved too much for one in Rock’s crew. Without anyone knowing it, the man left the circle of safety and shot himself through the head. His friends heard two shots, but did not find the man until morning, dead on the east side of Setzer Creek. Neither he nor his comrades suffered a single burn.

Engineers for the Milwaukee Road saved thousands of townspeople trapped by the fire – and steep topography – along their north Idaho route. The firestorm overran Grand Forks, a rough-and-tumble town of laborers and camp followers midway between Taft and Avery, before a rescue could be mounted. Its citizens literally ran the mile to Falcon, but the fire was close behind. The call for help went out by telegraph to Kyle, and a work engine was dispatched over burning trestles.

Johnnie McKedon coaxed his train back to Kyle, which by then was afire, then over a series of fire-weakened trestles to Stetson and eventually – with refugees clinging to the locomotive and hanging from the running boards – into Avery.

At the same time, another work train deposited 400 people in the relative safety of the two-mile-long Taft tunnel. The only known fatality of the railroad rescues was a man who panicked and jumped as the train neared a burning trestle. His grave remains alongside the now-abandoned Milwaukee Road bed, on the Route of the Hiawatha mountain bike trail outside Avery.

After the blowup, Edward Pulaski told the story of his crew to his wife, who recorded it for him. He was 40 years old and had prospected throughout the St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene for the past 25 years, signing on as a ranger with the Forest Service in 1908. Pulaski and his men – 150 in all – met the great fire on the divide between Big Creek of the St. Joe River and Big Creek of the Coeur d’Alene.

“On Aug. 20, a terrific hurricane broke over the mountains,” Pulaski told his wife, who had remained in Wallace with her baby as the fire bore down on the town, escaping at the last moment to the slushy safety of a tailings flat. “The wind was so strong it lifted men out of their saddles. The smoke and heat became so intense that it was difficult to breathe. Under such conditions, it would have been worse than foolhardy to attempt to fight the fire. I got on my horse and went where I could, gathering my men.”

By the time Pulaski collected 45 men, his voice was nearly gone from trying to shout over the din of fire, wind and falling trees. Not a tree remained standing out front of the fire, so great was the wind. It was nearly impossible to see through the smoke , nearly impossible to move through the crashing timber. Pulaski knew, from his prospecting days, that two old mine tunnels were nearby, one shorter, one longer. He and his men raced for the longer of the two. On the way, one man was killed by a falling tree. Another fell behind and was caught by the fire.

“We reached the tunnel just in time,” he said. “I ordered the men to lie face down upon the ground and not dare to sit up, unless they wanted to suffocate, for the tunnel was filling with fire, gas and smoke.”

The mine timbers caught fire. The cold air of the tunnel rushed out, drawn into the fire. Smoke and fire rushed in. Pulaski stood at the entrance, assuring those who might try to leave that he would shoot them, then filling his hat with mine water and throwing it at the burning timbers.

“The men were in a panic of fear, some crying, some praying,” Pulaski said. “ Many of them soon became unconscious from the terrible heat, smoke and fire gas. I, too, finally sank down unconscious. I do not know how long I was in this condition, but it must have been for hours.”

The next thing he knew was the voice of one of his men.

“Come outside, boys; the boss is dead,” the man said.

“Like hell he is,” Pulaski replied.

It was five o’clock on the morning of Aug. 21.

“We tried to stand up, but our legs refused to hold us,” he said. “ So we dragged ourselves outside to the creek to ease our parched throats and lips. Our disappointment was terrible when we found the stream filled with ashes and the water too hot to drink . We counted our number. Five were missing. Some of the men went back and tried to awaken them, but they were dead.”

As the air cleared and the men gained strength, they were able – although Pulaski did not know how – to stagger down the mountainside into Wallace. “ When walking failed us, we crawled on our hands and knees. We were in a terrible condition, all of us hurt or burned. I was blind, and my hands were burned from trying to keep the fire out of the tunnel. Our shoes were burned off our feet, and our clothes were in parched rags.

“Those who died later were brought in on pack horses.”

Officially, two lives were lost when the fire burned through Wallace, although there almost certainly were others. The Aug. 22 edition of Wallace’s Daily Idaho Press carried this account of one man’s death:

The lifeless body of John G. Boyd, the aged father of Captain J.C. Boyd of the fire department and former Northern Pacific agent here, was found Saturday night lying in the road on Pearl Street. Beside him lay a cage containing a parrot. The bird was dead.

Captain Boyd brought the members of his family down from their home in plenty of time to escape the flames rushing down the hill. Mr. Boyd happened to think the parrot was left in the house and decided to return for it. He had plenty of time to get the bird.

When he had been gone 45 minutes, the others of the family started a search that resulted in finding the body. It is believed that Mr. Boyd had stopped to wet down the house and on the way down was overcome by heat and smoke. He was not burned.

Roy Phillips was camped on the Montana-Idaho border, near Taft, with a crew of 150 firefighters. Their work that day had been routine. There was little wind and no premonition of the calamity that would soon ensue.

The cook woke Phillips shortly after midnight, alarmed by the noise of the rescue train making its way east from Wallace, whistling in hopes of drawing people to the tracks. The train did not, however, wait for Phillips and his men, as the fire was already starting to be seen and heard.

“The fire by this time was an awe-inspiring spectacle,” Phillips wrote in his subsequent report. “The whole horizon to the west was aflame, and the noised caused by the falling timber was terrific.”

Some in the crew suggested taking refuge in the railroad tunnel at Borax, but Phillips knew there was always a strong current of air in the hole and succeeded in turning back the crew. A detachment of soldiers was at the camp, too, having just arrived in the woods that afternoon. At Phillips’ urging, soldiers and firefighters immediately notched a fire line around the camp and set a backfire which rapidly spread outward, drawn by the suction of the main fire.

“The vanguard of the fire was sweeping over us, and the hills all around us were catching fire and soon were a raging mass of flames,” Phillips said. “ Our backfire had burned perhaps one or two hundred yards before the main front of the fire struck. When they came together, the heated air current filled with cinders swirled down upon us, and for a short space of time that seemed an eternity, we gasped and choked for air and were blinded by smoke. Finally, the air cleared and we found that nearly everything inside our fire line was burning that had not been wet down. Fortunately, the ground was fairly clear of refuse and the buildings and tents had all been soaked with water and did not catch fire. ”

We know them only as Mr. and Mrs. Swaine, residents of Mullan, Idaho, and survivors of the fires of 1910. We know their story from Mr. Swaine’s handwritten account.

Associated Press photo
Sunset Brewing Co. was among the businesses destroyed when the fire of 1910 swept through Wallace, Idaho.
By 3 p.m., the sky became so dark from smoke that bats took flight, thinking night had fallen. Fire brands began to fall on the street, many bearing live fire. “All agreed that our worst fears were about to be realized,” said Swaine. “Groups of men began congregating at street corners, discussing the scene and a sort of reverential silence seemed to have settled upon the place.”

Every home and business was given a thorough soaking by the town’s fire hose, then a follow-up by garden hose. Still, calm prevailed.

The wind came toward evening, ferociously and from the south, “carrying the Red Terror toward us,” Swaine wrote. “Night came on with its added darkness. The screeching, fiendish roar of the fire increased. The flames were headed right for us.”

When a train carrying refugees from Wallace arrived, on its way to Missoula, only the most frightened of Mullan’s citizens climbed aboard. The townspeople intended to save their tiny community. Sometime after midnight, they lit a backfire in the path of the approaching firestorm. The tactic worked. The flames were diverted.

But another finger of fire soon followed, and word arrived – by messenger on horseback – that Wallace was afire. “By 8 a.m., the wind resumed its zeal from the west,” Swaine said. “ The fire jumped the river and was covering the ranges west of us and traveling northward. The day was like a horrible night, but through the trying hours was that dread of another even more terrible night to come. All too soon it came, and those of us who witnessed it have termed it the Night of Terror.”

The wind came with a fury, and with it the fire.

“In every direction, a mountain of flame faced us,” Swaine said. “ One side of a gulch would be aflame, and in an instant the fire would be borne across to the other side. Those familiar with the location of our little village can, in a measure, picture the scene. Others never can. The mountains so high and steep with the narrow gulches between resembled curtains of fire suspended from the clouds.”

“Every emergency reaches a crisis,” he said. “And when the extremity arises, the last resort is adopted.”

For Mullan, that last resort came when fires had surrounded the town and were crowding to within a few feet of the doors. Sparks rained like water. The tops of the mountains were a “mighty billow of flame.”

And it was unanimously agreed that the town would surely burn – and with it, the townspeople – unless backfires could be successfully ignited on every front.

It took considerable courage, though, to start more fires when the town was already awash in a sea of flames. A backfire can race up a mountainside to meet a fire front, or it can reverse course and itself become a menace. But fire was the town’ s only remaining defense against the fire. So the men formed a line just a few feet behind the buildings, and at a signal, each started a blaze.

In “less time than it takes to relate it,” the fires united and burst uphill. There was no escape from Mullan.

“Fancy a deep bowl which is completely lined with seething flames, yourself a spectator in the center, and you can in some degree conceive the scene,” Swaine said. “Midnight was as light as day.”

But the town was, in fact, saved. Every fire brand was extinguished. Every home was saved, every life protected. A new day – Aug. 22, 1910 – dawned without wind or fire.

With “absolute ruin, destruction and possibly death” staring them in the face, the people of Mullan had drawn upon “the calm, stolid reserve implanted within each soul,” Swaine said. “ We realized as never before how affliction reduces us to a common level. We had all been one united in a single cause, that of saving our all, be it a pocket knife, a home or a fortune.”

“It was a terrible ordeal,” Mrs. Swaine told her husband as night turned to day, “but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”